- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Now that Edward has unveiled his five most improved players from the SEC this season, I’ll take my shot.
In some cases, guys went from being a very good player to a great player. In other cases, guys went from being a reserve to a key starter. There were also some guys who bounced back from injury-plagued seasons.
Here’s what I came up with. The players are listed in alphabetical order:
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama: Flip on the game tape, and it’s obvious that Hightower was a different player this season. He was back to his explosive, instinctive self after conceding that mentally and physically he wasn’t all the way back a year ago from reconstructive knee surgery, which cut short his second season in 2009. As the Crimson Tide’s middle linebacker in their base defense and edge pass-rusher on third down, Hightower led the team with 85 total tackles, including 11 for loss. He also had eight quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. In short, he made a lot more things happen in 2011 than he did the year before and saved one of his best efforts for the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said Hightower was one of the guys who made the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-ranked defense go, and with his knee back to full strength, the 6-4, 260-pound junior went from a good player in 2010 to one of the best linebackers in college football in 2011.
Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: When Lawrence came to Mississippi State, he was more of a utility man. In fact, he played quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker during his first season. But he settled in at one of the outside linebacker spots and had a monster junior season, finishing second in the SEC with 123 total tackles, including six for loss. The 6-2, 230-pound Lawrence also forced two fumbles and helped fill a huge void at linebacker after the Bulldogs lost all three starters the year before. Lawrence’s chief role prior to this season was on special teams, and he’d recorded just 31 tackles in his first two seasons combined. He passed that total by the fourth game of the season this year on a defense that finished 16th nationally in points allowed.
Eric Reid, S, LSU: Tyrann Mathieu had the catchy “Honey Badger” nickname and collected a ton of highlight-reel plays, but Reid was one of the most improved and consistent players on LSU’s team in what was a breakout sophomore season for him. He tied with Mathieu for the team lead with 76 total tackles and also had two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His interception at the 1-yard line in the first game against Alabama was the play of the year in the SEC. Reid was as good in coverage as he was against the run and wound up earning second-team All-SEC honors. He showed flashes as a true freshman when he wound up starting the last three games of the regular season, but put it all together this season to become one of the better all-around safeties in the league.
Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: Part of the credit goes to an improved Vanderbilt offensive line, but no player in the SEC improved more from last season to this season than Stacy. The 5-9, 208-pound junior set school records with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and he also caught 20 passes. Stacy averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and more than once, demonstrated that he could break the big one. He had three runs of 50 yards or longer. Stacy’s rushing total this season was nearly 400 yards more than he had in his first two seasons combined. Stacy rushed for 331 yards a year ago, but missed the last three games after suffering a blow to the head against Florida. He also shared the carries with Warren Norman the first two seasons, and Norman redshirted this season after undergoing knee surgery. Stacy worked hard on his strength and explosiveness last offseason, and seeing the opportunity to be the Commodores’ go-to back this season, he ran with it all the way to a record-setting season and All-SEC honors.
Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Even before his senior season, Wright had been a key member of the Hogs’ receiving corps and one of their strongest leaders. But in 2011, he blossomed into the most productive receiver in the SEC and set several school records along the way. Wright had always possessed great speed, but he became a better player after the catch this season, which made him even more difficult to defend. He finished with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging 16.9 yards per catch. Wright was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection and leaves Arkansas as the single-season record-holder in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The 12 touchdown catches match the number of touchdowns Wright caught in his first three seasons combined, and he had 24 more catches this season than he did a year ago as a junior.
Here are 10 more players that just missed the cut: